Science briefs: Crafty crocodiles can set traps

  • Updated: December 14, 2013 - 3:58 PM

A crocodile basks in the sun in Belize. (Ray Grumney/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT) ORG XMIT: 1145856

Scientists have discovered that crocodiles and alligators are incredibly cunning — so clever that they use lures to trap and gobble unsuspecting birds.

The discovery in two crocodilian species — mugger crocodiles and American alligators — is the first report of tool use in reptiles, according to a study in the journal Ethology Ecology and Evolution.

Some birds, like egrets, actually choose to nest around crocodile and alligator hangouts because they offer some protection from tree-climbing predators like raccoons and monkeys.

Researcher Vladimir Dinets of the University of Tennessee noticed that mugger crocodiles in India seemed to be balancing twigs on their snouts, and then lunging when an egret came close to grab a stick.

Similar behavior was observed at St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida.

Here was the really strange part: The reptiles were covering their snouts with sticks only during spring nesting season, when demand for twigs was high and birds would grab every little woody scrap they could get their beaks on to build their nests.

So the crocodilians were not just clever enough to use lures, they were also aware enough of bird behavior to know exactly when their bait would be useful.

Neanderthals were neatniks?

Excavation of a collapsed rock shelter used by Neanderthals suggests that our extinct human relatives organized their living spaces according to tasks, researchers say.

In a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Archeology, researchers examined artifacts recovered at Riparo Bombrini, in northwest Italy, and concluded that their dwelling was organized around such activities as butchering animals, shaping tools and building fires.

“There has been this idea that Neanderthals did not have an organized use of space, something that has always been attributed to humans,” said lead study author Julien Riel-Salvatore, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado-Denver. “We found that Neanderthals did not just throw their stuff everywhere but in fact were organized and purposeful when it came to domestic space.”

At the archaeological site, researchers focused on three levels of the cave that Neanderthals used roughly 45,000 years ago. They found evidence of fire building, or “hearths” toward the rear wall of the cave, while stone tools and chips, as well as animal materials, were found outside the cave.

“This may suggest an effort to keep activities associated with the production of noxious debris segregated from those parts of the shelter that were more enclosed and that, possibly, were associated with activities such as sleeping and socializing next to hearths,” the authors wrote.

Among other findings, the researchers noted the presence of edible shellfish remains throughout the cave, as well as large amounts of ocher. Study authors said they were unclear as to what the ocher was used for, but speculated that it may have been used during animal butchering or in processing animal hides.

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